I had the great pleasure this morning of reading a book that reminded me just why I turn to children's books for my personal reading pleasure--The Visconti House, by Elsbeth Edgar (Candlewick, 2011, upper middle grade, 304 pages). It is almost as if Edgar read a list of books I have loved since I was young, and remixed the bits I liked best, resulting in a beautiful hour of happy cover to cover reading.
I so appreciated when I was young, and I still do, books about girls who don't fit in because their interests are so diametrically opposed to those of their peers (which is one big reason why I'm going to BEA next week--to see some of my book peeps!). The Visconti House offers a stellar example of such a girl--Laura, a girl who's working on a detailed encyclopedia of dragons, who has eccentric parents (her father wakes her up by quoting Longfellow, much to her annoyance) and who lives in an old and crumbling Italianate mansion (not your ordinary Australian house).
Then add to that a new boy in town, Leon, who is also a loner (but who, of course, proves to be more intelligent, and much more fun to be with, than the other kids). And then, as the pièce de résistance, add an old house with secrets, and an overgrown garden, and fading murals painted on its walls, and a hidden cellar room....And then, as icing on the cake, add a detective story, (involving trips to the library for historical research! and a visit to an old cemetery! I am utterly sincere in my excitement here), as the two kids try to figure out the story of Mr. Visconti, who tried to make his house as much like a beautiful little bit of Italy as he could, but who lived and died there alone. His is a sweetly melancholy story, and it echoes the theme of the book--that difference is not something to be afraid of, and that convention should not get in the way of life and love.
Here's the Australian cover (Walker Books, 2009). I don't find it all that appealing--for one thing it looks like she has no clothes on, and this is a much warmer and cozier book than the girl's expression indicates. Sure Laura is unhappy at school, and Mr. Visconti's story made me sniff, but the feel of the book--with its good food (including little rolls shaped like echidnas!), loving parents, good friends, and a tree house aerie--is not depressing at all. I think the US cover does a better job.
It's listed on Amazon as YA, but I think it is beautifully, squarely, and solidly best for the 6th or 7th grade girl who is off to the side of the mainstream middle-school currents.